Can You Buy Human Rights? Projections for Afghanistan

By: Kara Woods

            November 24th is the date for the Afghanistan 2020 Donor’s Conference, where the US is taking a different stance than it has from the past 19 years, and is encouraging other countries to do the same. Secretary Pompeo’s remarks concerning US policy for the 2020 Donor’s Conference is inline with the suggestions made in the February 2020 Doha agreements with the Taliban: US assistance in Afghanistan is dependent on their ability to reach peace and comply with international human rights norms. Secretary of State Pompeo stated at the signing ceremony for the US-Taliban peace agreements that “If you take these steps, if you stay the course and remain committed to negotiations with the Afghan Government and other Afghan partners, we and the rest of the international community assembled here today stand ready to reciprocate”.[1] The US is continuing the policy at the 2020 donor conference, suggesting funding according to Afghanistan’s compliance with human rights norms in vague terms.

 In previous years the US set a 4 year schedule for donations, coming in as the largest international donor, but this year it has been suggested that the US intends to set its donation for a single year available for renewal according to the circumstances on the ground in 2021, and at a comparatively reduced rate[2], per Pompeo’s March declaration to slash Afghanistan funding[3]. The offer of additional international aid is supposed to encourage both the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban to seek peace, though it is difficult to assess whether the Taliban are aware of the economic ramifications of losing US international aid. Currently the Afghan Government raises less than half of its annual expenditures: 2.3 billion in taxes, but 5.3 billion in expenditures[4]. The Taliban, by best estimates, collect approximately US 1.5 billion through primarily illegal means[5]. Should international aid pull out of the country completely or even seriously decrease, the economy will suffer substantially. This leverage in Afghanistan becomes increasingly important as the US government works to withdraw troop presence, decreasing the pressure the military can place on the Taliban to encourage them to come to a peace agreement.

            Using financial incentives to punish human rights offenders is a relatively recent practice  in foreign policy that comes in many forms. Two of the most recognizable forms in US policy are the Global Magnitsky Act and the Leahy doctrine, both of which prohibit US funding to go to people who have violated international human rights laws. The Magnitsky doctrine was created in response to the fate of a Russian accountant that uncovered a tax fraud perpetuated by Russian officials, and suffered a year without trial in inhumane conditions before dying from resulting poor health conditions and denial of treatment.[6] The 2012 Global Magnitsky Act was passed to prevent a repeat of Magnitsky’s situation. Magnitsky sanctions are used by the president against known human rights abusers and government officials who go after human rights whistleblowers.[7] A Magnitsky sanctions means that a foreigner can not travel to the US, holding US property or bank accounts, and all current assets within US territory are converted to the US government.[8] At the moment, there are 55 individuals subject to Magnitsky sanctions. The Leahy doctrine is more of a preventative doctrine that states that no foreign security service guilty of human rights abuse may receive US assistance, and plays out as a vetting procedure before aid is dispersed[9]. Recipients are vetted for crimes against international human rights standards, and if found to have committed violations of human rights, US aid is not given.[10]

            Both these doctrines have their flaws that cast doubt on their ability to actually affect human rights implementation. The Magnitsky doctrine only works against people who have major assets in the US, and when used against unfriendly countries. It works best if multiple countries are working in concert against the same people, but that is difficult to orchestrate. The act resulted in Russia retaliating against the US through sanctions of their own against Americans who reportedly have abused international human rights standards, and in typical cold war fashion, this will likely continue to escalate.[11] The Leahy doctrine is often forced to confront the truth that people who need security sector reform in post-conflict scenarios are often guilty of violations of international human rights. In order to achieve security sector reform goals, the aid will be most effective when used by people who are already in a position of power to do good, and US agents attempt to find a balance between using the aid to benefit the most people versus benefitting only the people who are not guilty of human rights violations. It is difficult to attempt to buy compliance with international human rights, which is illustrated through possible issues with the current US stance of leveraging human rights through funding.

             The current attempts made by the US to leverage Afghanistan into compliance with international human rights has similar flaws. While US aid is dependent on compliance with human rights, other countries like Russia and China are not as scrupulous with their funds. It is possible that should the US withdraw funding, Russia or China will step in with its own funding, giving either of them the leverage that the US currently holds in Afghanistan. There is also the issue of the vagueness concerning where the US intends to enforce compliance with international human rights norms. The Leahy system doesn’t allow for the difficulty a government has with enforcing human rights standards with no money, no power, and no institutions already in place that understand human rights. In order to achieve their aims, the US has ignored or waived bachi bazi reports, the practice of men sexually abusing young boys, inside the afghan military forces, in order to be allowed to continue support of Afghan military forces.[12] Will practices like bachi bazi be the tipping point against US funding under the current policy? Female participation in government? The right to vote for leaders? The US has not outlined where its support of human rights stands, and while that gives the government flexibility according to the developing situation, it weakens the threat of removal of funds. The parties in Afghanistan may either see US funding as coming with unrealistic and impossible to accomplish requirements and give up on obtaining significant amounts at all, or they will resist being reliant on US funding with concerns about becoming a puppet of the US, an accusation the Taliban has long aimed at the Afghan Government.

            Can you buy compliance with international human rights? History suggests that you cannot. Morality suggests that you have to try. People who gain or maintain power in ways that abuse human rights are very good at using their power to get around being held accountable for their crimes and appealing to other sources of financial aid. However, the idea of US taxpayer money going to support someone who practices bachi bazi or incites violence is repulsive. Either we stop using funds to support stabilization efforts in post-conflict countries, we accept that some money is going to end up in the pockets of human rights abusers, or we continue to work on our financial sanctions and benefits that are centered around international human rights standards. The carrot of US funding to produce results in Afghanistan should be watched carefully in order to further develop how to use funds to encourage respect for international human rights standards.


[1] Pompeo, Afghanistan Signing Ceremony Remarks, Doha, Qatar, (Feb. 29, 2020). https://www.state.gov/secretary-michael-r-pompeo-at-afghanistan-signing-ceremony/

[2] Byrd, Afghanistan Donor Conference 2020: Pitfalls and Possibilities, USIP, (Oct. 7, 2020). https://www.usip.org/index.php/publications/2020/10/afghanistan-donor-conference-2020-pitfalls-and-possibilities

[3] Lee, US slashes aid to Afghanistan after Pompeo visit to Kabul, APNEWS, (March 23, 2020). https://apnews.com/article/649879924a532522e51291955170c034

[4] CIA World Factbook, Afghanistan: Economy. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/af.html

[5] Azami, Afghanistan: How does the Taliban make money?, BBC World Service and Reality Check, (Dec. 22, 2020) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-46554097

[6] Browder, Sergi Magnitsky, (2020). http://www.billbrowder.com/sergei-magnitsky

[7] Global Human Rights Accountability Act, 113 S. 1933. https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/senate-bill/284/text

[8] Id.

[9] US Department of State, Leahy Fact Sheet, (Mar. 9, 2018). https://www.state.gov/leahy-fact-sheet/

[10] Id.

[11] RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, Russia Responds To ‘Magnitsky List’ By Banning Americans, (April, 3, 2013). https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-response-magnitsky-list/24956553.html

[12] Mark, Green Beret who beat Afghan official over alleged child assault to stay in Army, CNN, (April, 29, 2016). https://www.cnn.com/2016/04/28/politics/green-beret-afghan-police-confrontation/index.html

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